When a television show has been around as long as the CBS reality warhorse Survivor—the show began its 21st reincarnation the 15th of September—it’s not a bad idea to add a little spice to the stew. The spice in Survivor: Nicaragua is the pinch of the celebrity who has been gracing the promos for the past few weeks. Super Bowl winning coach, he of the silver coif, Jimmy Johnson added to a castaways version of the mythic battle between youthful strength and aged wisdom. Mix in a sweet young lady with a prosthetic leg, a few of the traditional bikinis, and some bulging muscles and you’ve got a recipe for a dramatic stew that hopefully will get viewers tuning in to the show as it moves to Wednesdays at eight o’clock.
The premier episode has the castaways divided into two groups as they march through some picturesque Nicaraguan brush, as yet unaware that they are not in fact in their final grouping. As they gather together with Jeff Probst, he takes the opportunity to lead them down the garden path a bit with questions about what they think they learned about each other as they marched. The he sends them on their first task, another new twist for the new season, a search for the pretentiously named “Medallion of Power.” Whoever finds it will win it for their team. Exactly what the power medallion can do isn’t revealed, but whatever it is, Jeff assures them and the viewer as well, whatever it is, it’s pretty darn good. It is only when the medallion is discovered by one of the younger women that the real teams are revealed to the castaways and to those of us who haven’t been watching the promos.
Most of the first half of this opening episode is devoted to this business of the medallion. The young team, the La Flor Tribe, is offered the opportunity to trade the mysterious power for fire-making material and fishing gear. The old fogies, now known as the Espada Tribe, will get whichever one they reject. Time out, and a dramatic pause for a word from our sponsor. For those of you who have TiVoed the episode, I won’t spoil the suspense; suffice it to say a choice is made and oldsters and youngsters trot off to their respective camp sites to make themselves comfy.
Really from this point on, except for the reveal of the power medallion’s power, the show goes back to the tried and true. There are the beginnings of plots and alliances. There are struggles with bugs and nausea and sleeplessness. There are solo commentaries on strategy and catty remarks about fellow contestants. Then there is the immunity challenge, and at least for this first challenge, it doesn’t seem to be particularly loaded to favor the young ‘uns. Through it all there is the beautiful natural scenery that has been one of the show’s hallmarks from its inception.
The cast of characters contains the usual mix: there’s a goat herder from Montana who thinks she may talk too much; a spacey student who gets nicknamed Fabio; an ex-Miami Dolphin cheerleader who has a paddleboard company; a southern dog trainer who lost her husband last year. They are all aficionados of the show, and from the very beginning the game is on. Kelly B, she of the prosthetic leg, worried that her tribe might consider her a weak link, takes care to find the right time to reveal her problem — only to have everyone worry that if she should get to the final three, she would be certain of the million. Sounds like she’s in real trouble.
Then there’s Jimmy Johnson: what’s he doing here, one of the tribal elders wonders. Well, what he’s doing here, he tries to convince his tribe mates, is trying to help one of them get the prize. After all, he argues more than once, if he gets to the end, no one is going to give him a million dollars. And if anyone is buying that, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn for sale, but in fact it looks very much like none of the other castaways is in the market for a bridge.
This is Survivor. If you’re a fan, this is pretty much the show you’ve been watching for all these years. If you like what they’ve been doing, well, they’re doing it again. If you’ve grown a little tired of the formula, they’ve tweaked it a bit, but not enough to shake the earth significantly. If you hated it before, well then, here’s another season to hate.